I suppose people have had better months than Donald Trump has had so far in September... maybe that guy who's won the Florida lottery seven times, or that baseball star who's engaged to Kate Upton. But Trump's surge to the lead in several national polls plus a clear softening of his image in the media seems almost impossible to fathom, even for his most ardent supporters.
Trump's numbers in the Real Clear Politics list of all polls have surged so strongly that Hillary Clinton's overall lead in the average of all those polls is down to just 1.1 percent. But he's jumped into a six-point lead in the daily LA Times/USC poll, he's ahead by one in the Fox News poll, by two in the CNN/ORC poll, and has a two-point lead also in the Rasmussen Reports survey. Just 16 days ago, Trump was trailing in almost all those polls and was behind by a whopping 10 points in that Fox poll just over a month ago.
When it comes to battleground states, Trump has a five-point lead in two separate polls in the crucial state of Ohio, where every poll had him behind there just one month ago. New polls show him leading in Colorado and within just three points in Michigan, two states considered prohibitively safe for Clinton just two weeks ago.
When Trump's campaign pulled the trigger on its latest shake-up, replacing Campaign Manager Paul Manafort with the team of Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon, it looked like a "Hail Mary" move. But in the weeks since, Trump has gone more mainstream and "acceptable" with trips to visit Mexico, an appearance in flood-ravaged Louisiana, and now an economic policy speech in New York that was a great improvement on his Mitt Romney impersonation at the Detroit Economic Club earlier this summer.
And the pièce de résistance happened Thursday night on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." Trump not only cracked jokes and seemed self-deprecatingly likeable, he even (gasp!) let Fallon mess with his hair! Video of that hair tussle is already going viral on Internet, ("Jimmy Fallon" has been #1 trending on Twitter since), making the image something akin to Bill Clinton playing the sax on the old "Arsenio Hall Show" in 1992. Yes, both scenes are similarly intellectually meaningless, but they're still politically potent. And because Trump has been such a media punching bag and pariah, this moment could be even more helpful than Clinton's was 24 years ago.
Ten-point surges don't just happen overnight. It's much more likely that Trump's relative weakness in the earlier polls was a result of voters leaning towards him, but not being ready to say so... even to anonymous pollsters. But Trump's softened messages, Clinton's "deplorables" comment, and her medical scare with frightening video of her looking totally immobilized to go with it have all provided those voters the excuse to finally "come out" for Trump. This phenomenon is well named by Dilbert cartoonist and blogger Scott Adams, who calls these events the "fake because." They're "fake" because the voters were always going to vote a certain way, but highly visible episodes make it possible to say: "well, now I'm voting for candidate X because..."
This is more bad news for the Clinton camp, because this means the Trump surge is not the result of some kind of ephemeral or fickle trend. Instead it's more like the gates of a dam opening that cannot be closed. And it makes sense from another historical/logical point of view. Hillary Clinton has essentially had 24 years in the national spotlight to close the deal with the majority of the voting American public and she's never done it. Even at the zenith of her polling fortunes earlier this summer, she never broke into truly unbeatable territory on her own. She had been simply skating on the extreme unfavorable impressions for Trump, and now that we're seeing that erode, Clinton may be trapped for good.
Sure, the polls may fluctuate again and the polling experts like Nate Silver and Larry Sabato are not yet convinced of a Trump victory. But that seems likely to change soon. With every story about Trump's poll strength that comes out, more on-the-fence supporters are likely to come out to support him.
One day, we may look back on Trump's "Tonight Show" appearance as his "Arsenio Hall Show" moment — a turning point when he connected with voters who had been unwilling to admit he had already won many of them over.